WASHINGTON — Earlier this month, the U.S. technology company Hewlett Packard agreed to plead guilty to bribery charges involving its Russian, Polish, and Mexican subsidiaries.
Hewlett Packard admitted to the U.S. Department of Justice that it bribed Russian officials in hopes of landing a lucrative contract with Moscow’s Office of the Prosecutor General. In Poland, HP admitted to bribery connected to contracts with the national police agency, while in Mexico, the illicit cash was tied to deals with Pemex, the state oil company.
What snared Palo Alto, California-based “HP” is the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), a groundbreaking law enacted nearly four decades ago.
HP’s agreement to pay US$108 million in both criminal and civil penalties is the tenth largest settlement ever under the FCPA. Other corporations that have been caught in FCPA’s net include Walmart, Halliburton, KBR, Siemens, BAE Systems, and Daimler AG.
Julie DiMauro, Executive Editor of the anti-corruption FCPA Blog, describes the impact upon HP for getting caught. “The penalty amount,” she says, “might not be the true deterrent here. What could be, to it and other companies, is the ample negative publicity it is getting for its actions in multiple countries.”
The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in December, 1977. It was enacted in the wake of a U.S Securities and Exchange investigation that found more than 400 U.S. corporations had collectively paid more than $300 million in bribes to foreign officials and political parties.
“The passage of the FCPA itself was revolutionary,” says Sarah Pray at the good governance and accountability organization Open Society Foundations. “In an era when you could still deduct bribes from your taxes in some countries, the United States took a stand.”
The FCPA casts a broad shadow covering both corporations and individuals. Under the law’s provisions, anyone – regardless of nationality - is in violation of the law if they engage in bribery while in the United States. That denies legal haven to foreigners engaging in corrupt activities offshore while in the U.S. The FCPA also applies to U.S. citizens’ financial actions overseas. And, since 1997, it covers foreign corporations that are traded on U.S. stock exchanges and securities markets.
The FCPA also blocks the use of proxies to engage in illegalities.
“The FCPA’s third party liability provisions,” says Washington attorney and FCPA expert Lucinda Low, “makes it a crime to make a payment to any person, knowing that the payment or other value will be passed through in whole or in part of a foreign government official or other covered [by the FCPA] recipient.”
Interestingly, though, so-called facilitation or “grease” payments to foreign officials may be legal under FCPA, if done to expedite that official’s performance of duties. And, payments to foreign officials may also be legal if the host country permits such activity.
Enacting the FCPA promoted a number of other nations to follow suit. Britain passed the Bribery Act, while Canada enacted a similar law. Anti-corruption laws have been enacted in China, Thailand, Malaysia, Brazil, and many other countries. The United Nations has responded by enacting the U.N. Convention on Corruption, while the 40 state Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) enacted, in 1997, an Anti-Bribery Convention, though the anti-corruption group Transparency International chides the OECD for not insisting its member states more aggressively enforce the provisions of that agreement.
While the FCPA has a broad reach, a former Justice Department FCPA prosecutor says it has a limitation – time – that needs to be changed.
“I think there are statute of limitations issues [within the FCPA],” says Kathleen Hamann. ”A lot of complex economic crimes in the U.S. have a 10 year statute of limitations. But, the FCPA has a five year statute of limitations.” Hamann, now in private practice, adds”I think there are a lot of individuals who end up not being prosecuted because the statute of limitations has run out.” She says “I think we need to treat it [bribery and other crimes covered by FCPA] as what it is, a complex financial crime.”
Sarah Pray calls for the FCPA’s expansion in another direction.
“The United States should outlaw all commercial bribery, not just bribery of foreign officials. Secondly,” Pray adds, “the United States should outlaw ‘facilitation payments. The line between a bribe and a facilitation payment is a blurred one, and this distinction should be eliminated.”
Along with penalties for misbehavior, Lucinda Low says the FCPA has compelled the business world to become proactive. “FCPA”, she says, “created expectations that companies will institute internal programs and controls to prevent, detect, and remediate bribery and corruption throughout their organizations. “